Archives for category: race politics criminal justice system

Oscar Grant’s daughter, Tatiana. (photo credit: Nijla Mu’min. Taken at the Oscar Grant Vigil in early 2010 at Fruitvale Bart Station.)

“He didn’t like to be left alone.”

Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda, played superbly by Octavia Spencer, delivers this line in one of the most compelling scenes in the film. It is a detail, that when considered in the context of the story, hits us on all sides, and most importantly, in the heart. Details like these penetrate the divisive rhetoric framing Oscar Grant as a saint or a criminal. Instead, he is a son who didn’t want to be left alone by his mother, a detail so specific and tangible that the story can only be felt at that point, not categorized, or framed.

The film centers on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a black Bay Area resident who was fatally shot in the back in the early hours of New Years Day 2009 after being detained by BART Police at Fruitvale Station, all of which was captured on Bart bystander’s cell phone cameras.

Michael B. Jordan delivers a whirlwind performance as Oscar Grant, one that sees him take on several micro- performances dictated by the personality of Grant. During the Q&A for the film, director Ryan Coogler spoke about his research of Grant, saying, “If you go to five different people, you get five different stories (of Grant).” This is best conveyed in a grocery store scene where Grant jovially assists an unknowing white female customer with a fried fish recipe, while maintaining a friendly exchange with a coworker, followed by an emotionally- heated interaction with the grocery store manager. Jordan skillfully navigates the varied textures of Grant, situating himself into different modes of empathy, anger, and joy. Of the role, he said, “…I’m not a political activist, I’m an actor and through my work I’m able to spark conversations between people, and get emotions out of people to start questioning how we treat one another.”

His performance is a great complement to Coogler’s direction and script, where nuance and foreshadowing are handled with a level of subtlety that doesn’t overemphasize their presence, but captures them in striking, understated ways. The Bay Area itself becomes a character, populated by black beanies, water rushing onto the rocks of the bay, and that distinct diction and physical bravado embodied by Grant and his friends, all framed beautifully by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who shot on super 16mm film here.

With that foreshadowing and characterization, comes a rising tension in both Grant and the film that makes the happiest moments- Grant playfully brushing his teeth with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) – bittersweet.  The sound design accelerates the tension, merging with the industrial, metallic rumble of the Bart train moving in and out of tunnels. The Bart becomes a warning, an element of dread in this way.

This is a film for the people, a film for feelers and thinkers who want to see a story about a flawed person who loved his daughter and family, and wanted something better in life even if he didn’t quite know how to get it. It is not a film about blame or about the cop who pulled the trigger, and it may be criticized for that lack of emphasis. But at a time where human beings like Grant are murdered and then scrutinized by the media about their “criminal background,” the film is important and necessary. It argues for a life that mattered to a daughter, and leaves us to wrestle with the hard questions of how this tragedy impacts her, and people like her.

Fruitvale Station opens in theaters July 12th. Visit the website for more information.

This Review is cross-posted on Shadow & Act on the Indiewire Network, HERE.

Marissa Alexander

Brown resumed punching Robyn F. and she interlocked her fingers behind her head and brought her elbows forward to protect her face. She then bent over at the waist, placing her elbows and face near her lap in [an] attempt to protect her face and head from the barrage of punches being levied upon her by Brown. Brown continued to punch Robyn F. on her left arm and hand, causing her to suffer a contusion on her left triceps (sic) that was approximately two inches in diameter and numerous contusions on her left hand.

I have some thoughts on this Mother’s Day. Some thoughts that won’t leave my mind. There is a mother named Marissa Alexander who was just sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the direction of her abusive husband.

The italicized excerpt above comes from the affidavit/ search warrant detailing the violence enacted on Rihanna by her then-boyfriend Chris Brown in 2009.

I recently saw the film, Think Like a Man, in a theater. When Chris Brown appeared on the screen, women swooned and howled in adoration of him. Some men even clapped. I don’t understand.

I don’t understand how a woman who has been repeatedly maimed and battered by a man, becomes the aggressor. I don’t understand how a man that bites and punches a woman until blood and contusion, becomes a king. Regardless of how we feel about about their music or popularity, that was a person who attacked another person. Alexander is also a person reacting to years of attacks by another person, but faces 20 years in prison.

This case draws eerie comparisons and likeness to the Trayvon Martin case. But what’s been interesting to me is the narrative and rhetoric that has surfaced in the black community. I keep hearing people lament the difficulties and hardships that young black men face in this country. And while I agree that black men have been systematically brutalized, I don’t believe the conversation should stop there. I don’t believe deficiencies in legal action only apply to black men, and to further that belief is to deny the slew of events that reflect larger, communal struggles for black men, black women, and other marginalized groups. This case being one.

This case takes place in the same state that acquitted Casey Anthony, a woman that the media helped portray as a helpless, mentally unstable mother. But what about this mother? What about Marissa Alexander? What about Raven Dozier, the young, pregnant, black woman who was recently kicked in the stomach by a police officer in Dekalb County, Georgia? Where are the stories about her struggle? I don’t see many.

But I do see and hear an unhealthy, absurd conflation of domestic violence, black man’s struggle, and heroism. I keep hearing stories about how we must protect our sons against police misconduct. I agree. But what about our daughters, mothers, aunts, and sisters? I know in writing this that I’m opening myself up to “you’re not down with the struggle” arguments from my own people. But I know that a struggle that doesn’t acknowledge the collective strife of the community, is not one that I want to be a part of. That divisive way of understanding government injustice only promotes the same voicelessness that we aim to combat.

I could write so much more, but I want to think about my mother in this moment. I want to think about the fluffy pancakes she prepared, and the love she sings daily.

I want to honor black mothers who are continually framed and portrayed as asexual, loud, troublemakers via film, the government-issued Moynihan Report, and gross sentencing that doesn’t consider their humanity. I have to think about Alexander’s children, who will be nearly adults when she is released. I have to think about a man who physically attacks a pregnant woman and doesn’t see a problem with that.  I have to think of the criminalization of black mothers and understand that their fight is also mine.

I cannot exist in limited frameworks that enforce our silence. Everything is not alright for anyone. And I’m saying it.

Hey people. I’m not sure of what sentiments I can express that haven’t already been echoed by numerous people who are extremely dissatisfied and disgusted with Thursday’s verdict in the Oscar Grant case. So I’m just going to highlight something that has been apparent to me for some time now; something which I cannot hold back any longer. Oscar Grant was a human being. He was a son, a father, a friend, and a man. He was also black. We live in a society where this one cultural marker determines the entire value of one’s life. I always say that if you really want to know what American society at large is thinking, read their blog comments. Nowhere is the hatred and racism more evident than in many folk’s attempt to air extremely poisonous, demeaning views under the guise of online usernames. Here, in these comments and in many other media outlets, there is a terribly uneven balance given to the weight of this atrocity. Users pick apart everything from Grant’s appearance in photos, his black skull cap, and smile, to his very presence on the BART train that New Years night that “caused his own death.” Really? I always attempted to ignore these views but I cannot help that they funnel a deeper, more venomous message that runs rampant in this country. Many people’s lives are not valued. It is clear here. And those that are valued, seem to be for far more problematic reasons than not.

There is no reason that news coverage of Lebron James change in NBA teams should’ve overshadowed that of an unarmed black man who was shot in the back while his hands were behind his back. There is no rhyme or reason why people would flock to this coverage and not even know who Oscar Grant is. This lop-sided importance placed on black sports players as commodities continues to reign supreme.

There is also no reason that coverage of Michael Vick’s past dog-fighting ring should’ve garnered more hate and outrage than an innocent person being murdered. I recall seeing people crying on the news in the response to the maiming of those dogs. I also recall reading death threats on blog sites, that were addressed to Vick himself. But when a young black man is murdered while laying face down and unarmed, there is no such outrage. There is something SERIOUSLY wrong with this. And it is this stigmatization of the black existence and body that contributes widely to the air of indifference that exists currently. Not to mention, there is a possibility that Mehserle could get less time than Vick did for the dog fighting conviction. Mehserle murdered a PERSON, not a dog.

I am angry, as we all are, but this anger must be used to move forward and combat what’s ahead. In the memory of Oscar Grant, Latasha Harlins, a teenage black girl who was shot and killed in LA by a store owner for allegedly trying to steal soda in 1991, Amadou Diallo who was shot at 41 times in NYC and killed for reaching for his wallet, and the countless black women who’ve been murdered over the years by serial killers, but whose deaths haven’t garnered more than a single headline in the local news, I write. There are ways that communities can fight back against the constant hatred aimed at its human citizens. One way is by serving on juries. The fact that the Oscar Grant case was decided by a jury with not one black juror on it, and by jurors with several close ties to law enforcement is not a surprise, and sends a message that we must demand to take part in these proceedings. There are also numerous organizations that organize Cop watch activities where communities help police their neighborhoods in an attempt to decrease the presence of police aggression.

Ultimately, I can’t say that I expected a verdict any different than what was given. However, my logical, humane mind still can’t help but take issue with the erroneous nature of the ruling. I am enraged, but also expectant of this when it comes to the American legal system. This is a problem. I’m going to close this post not with words but with a photograph. I shot this while at the Oscar Grant Memorial rally in Oakland last January. The photograph shows Grant’s young daughter smiling into the camera. This photograph is all the evidence we need to know that lives should be valued and respected. This child should not have to grow up without a parent because a police officer made the decision that her’s father’s life didn’t matter.

Oscar Grant was a human being.


Oscar Grant's daughter, Tatiana

holding hands

… The loud bossy demeanors, quick tempers, and the bizarre things that Black women do their hair (weaves, wigs, relaxers) is something that I find a turn off.  And the obesity epidemic has really hit Black women hard.  I can’t remember a time when I’ve seen so many fat black women.  If you’re looking for a peaceful relationship, the American Black woman is not your best bet. There are exceptions of course.  I’ve dated women of Australian, Russian, Czechoslovakian,  Romanian, New Zealand Maori, Chinese, British (Black), and Italian descent, and had all of them angry at me at one time or another, and none of them had the temper, or yelled at me as viciously when angry like the American Black women I’ve dated in the past.   Not even close.  All of those other nationality women were much easier to get along with even though there were ups and downs as there are in all relationships.  Even the British Black chick was mellow.  Interestingly, only Black American women have called me a Nigger during an argument.  I used to feel that they brought out the worst in me, not the best, and I haven’t dated one since 1993.  But they claim that they are “strong Black women” and confuse being hard with being strong.

Anonymous black male

I really debated about whether to address this topic, but alas, I couldn’t hold back.

The previous comment comes from a black male (who’ll remain anonymous). His comments refer to a website that has compiled various photographs of black men (many of them athletes and entertainers), who are currently married or dating outside of their race.

It was not the website that upset me as much as the blatant generalizations and stereotyping that black women, and black men for that matter, undergo at the hands of one another. I see it happening more and more lately. Recently, I read a very interesting, albeit depressing study about how black women have a higher chance of spending their lives single, unmarried, or childless because they have a hard time finding or attracting a black male of equal educational or career footing. According to the article, “Their marriage chances have declined… This may sound trivial but one reason is that they outnumber men in this education group.” They also state, “Highly educated black men tend to “outmarry” (marry outside race, religion or ethnicity) at a higher rate than black women.”

I couldn’t help but to acknowledge that I was a part of this study’s research pool. Statistically, my chances for finding a black mate who possesses a similar educational background are slim. Though I tend to disagree that one’s educational background is indicative of how they’ll function in a relationship, this study saddened me because it comes at a time when explosive stereotypes and generalizations greatly impact the way black men see black women, and vice-versa. As the comment above illustrates, there are people who would rather revert to misinformed caricatures of black women, than to acknowledge us as distinct human beings. Their ideologies are informed by a racist historical context that once placed black women into rigid categories of mammy, sapphire, breeder, jezebel, sexual deviant, among others. Past stereotypes have now morphed into modern ones: welfare queen, the “loud” black woman, video vixen, confrontational, ghetto, and argumentative about everything.

Like the writer above, some seek to place a particular blame and guilt on black women, without realizing that they are simply recycling the same views that slave masters once held. This black man wasn’t the first to claim that relationships with black women couldn’t be “peaceful.” In 1965, a white New York senator named Daniel Moynihan, wrote a government report, entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” otherwise known as the Moynihan Report.” In it, he detailed the extent to which the “black woman” was emasculating the black male, and thus breaking down, and ruining, the structure of the black family. This report contributed to the long legacy of the vilification of the black woman, and I can’t help but refer to this when I hear people express sentiments that are infused with this rhetoric.

To see this tarring of the black female image perpetuated in 2009, by fellow black men, whose image has also been considerably tarred over the course of decades, is extremely unfortunate. I’m not going to entertain arguments that do not consider the wide array of nuances within the black female spectrum, just as I don’t subscribe to the rampant criminalization of black men’s identities. I know that racial, sexist hegemony within this country has enabled these backward representations to emerge and take hold. Through out my life, I’ve been encouraged to define my womanhood according to someone else’s terms. A boy in high school urged me to get my hair straightened so it would be “pretty,” a guy on myspace told me he’d like me if I was “lighter,” a high school teacher told me to “get rid of my urban attitude” when I attempted to speak with him in class. If we can’t see how the black female existence has been affected by racist, sexist notions, and we adhere to them, we are no better than those who we label “racist” or “sexist.”

So instead of stamping all black women with the label of “angry, loud, drama-queen,” why don’t we take that same energy and attempt to shift the narrow paradigm, for the sake of our friends, family, daughters, sons, and the world. As a black woman, I can agree that there is a lot to be angry about when it comes to my existence, and those of other women, and rightfully so. Here in the United States, young women and teenagers are being prostituted and sold into sexual slavery, like property. Black women have some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the country. Many mainstream Hollywood films seem to show a rigid scale of black female characters. I could go on and on. But while these instances fill me with emotion, that does not mean I’m a “loud, angry black woman,” but instead shows that I am a passionate human being who reacts to the pressures of life and the issues at hand. My complicated existence renders me unique, as does the existence of any person.

I believe the key to a healthy dialogue between black people, and all people ultimately, is a careful attention to how historical, racist, and/or sexist rhetoric informs the way we interact and interpret one another. It is only from this vantage point that we can break out of this, and put our energies into fighting against current issues-the prison industrial complex, health problems, educational erosion- to begin to see how we can better understand each other, heal, grow, and move forward.

It just doesn’t work.


Last Saturday, I boarded a metro train in Washington, DC and was instantly greeted by makeshift picket signs depicting President Obama as Hitler, a monkey, Tarzan, and an “idiot” among other titles. The trains were packed with “Tea Party Patriots”  in American flag shirts who were confused about which train route would deliver them to that day’s protest against Obama’s healthcare reform. Or rather, that’s been the acceptable rhetoric for clearly racist actions and sentiments that have plagued the President and this initiative. I sat in that metro car seething with rage, as I was outnumbered by a swarm of people wielding signs that clearly had nothing to do with healthcare, but all to do with a Black president. Had I anticipated or researched the protest more thoroughly, I could’ve planned some sort of opposition, or alerted folks in support of healthcare in DC, to join me. But I didn’t.

All that to say -what’s going on in this country is not about opposition to healthcare.  If it were, “Obama monkey” t-shirts (that play on age-old stereotypes of black people as apes) would not be worn by protesters. “Legitimate” complaints against healthcare reform would not be exchanged for disturbing, xenophobic remarks about our President’s American citizenship and nationality. What does that have to do with healthcare? From the beginning of his campaign, Obama made it clear that healthcare reform would be one of his leading initiatives. I find it interesting that some of the same people who voted for him knowing this fact, (and some who didn’t), now have such loaded, venomous views about him and his plans. What happened to people of all colors and classes running the streets of major cities in America when he was elected? What happened to the collective unity and ideological shifts that were constantly reported in the media? They’ve somehow been stampeded by a group of people who never supported Obama, didn’t vote for him, or did vote for him and are now using his race to discredit him. And now,  discussing race becomes some dirty word that one becomes reprimanded for when mentioning.

President Obama just announced that he disagrees with President Carter’s assertion that much of the healthcare outrage against him is based on race. In an effort to “play it safe” and somehow please all sides, Obama and his White House staff have come to embrace race-neutrality. Interesting and potentially effective idea, but not when “Tea Party” Protesters are in front of the white house proclaiming that they “desire American Society as it was when the Boston Tea Party occurred.” So, essentially they’re saying they desire a society where Blacks weren’t considered human, slavery was in effect, and Native/ Indigenous people were being repeatedly massacred on their own land. Something is clearly not right here.

Race matters, and in President Obama’s attempt to ignore it, the inequalities that spawn from it are only exacerbated. A Black woman and Army Reservist, Tasha Hill, was brutally beaten on Tuesday (9/15) in Georgia by a white man outside of a Cracker Barrel Restaurant, after she notified him that he nearly knocked down her daughter. He beat her in front of her daughter and other restaurant patrons. As he beat her, he yelled “‘You’re a fucking black nigger bitch.'”

In a climate such as this, where a person (one who serves this country at that), can be brutally attacked for their very existence, I have a hard time believing that “Tea Party Patriots” with signs that show my president as a monkey and say they desire an unequal America, have legitimate arguments against healthcare. There is no race neutrality in these times. Color- blindness sounds good when people don’t want to take accountability for the systems of privilege at play in this country when related to race and class, and themselves.

So I wonder where that leads us. Do we go out and oppose these Tea Party Protesters face on, knowing that our president is not fully stepping up to the virulent racism that they are spewing? Do we continue to debate about the situation at hand, which is healthcare, and how so many people are going insured and suffering because some people equate it with communism? The answer is surely not ignoring the racialized stigmas that are preventing this initiative from moving forward.

I just know what I saw on the metro that day, and it wasn’t about healthcare.


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I read in an online article a few days ago that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was ready to “move on” from his arrest by white police officer James Crowley in hopes that he can use the encounter to improve fairness in the criminal justice system. He was quoted as saying “in the end, this is not about me at all.”  The problem is, it is all about him (and President Obama to some extent). Or at least that’s how the media has continually framed this issue.

This romanticized idea of racial profiling amazes me for several reasons. One, most people who are racially profiled don’t receive back-to-back CNN special reports and they don’t have opinion polls devoted to their experiences and whether what happened to them was just or unjust. Most people who are profiled by law enforcement go nameless to the general public, their rights stripped from them without any due process of the law, or of the media.

So how do we keep profiling from becoming the next media trend? Don’t make it one. Acknowledge that this happens every day to many people, and that their trials are just as important, if not more, than that of Skip Gates. What makes his case particularly interesting is that he is a Harvard Professor, public intellectual, and he was in his own home (as are many people who are profiled while driving into their garages, down their street, or walking to the store). His story echoes the same patterns that outline Oakland, Chicago, and Brooklyn city streets every single day: people are stopped, pulled over, accosted, detained, harassed, and mistreated because of physical identifiers: race, baggy pants, age, class, and presumed gender. So, instead of using this time to harp on the peculiarity of Skip Gates’ arrest, let us harp on the fact that so many others just like him undergo this type of treatment everyday and no one cares. Their stories escape the news stations and hang with them forever. The mental trauma of one’s life being repeatedly disrupted and their existence questioned is something that goes unnoticed here. While I am sure Skip Gates underwent some sort of personal trauma due to the incident, I also know that he is Skip Gates- wealthy and well known-  and is capable, as in this case, of “moving on” from the incident due partly to his stature in society. Some are unable to “move on” or to potentially have a beer with their captors.

Oscar Grant was unable to “move on” because he lost his life due to a policeman’s racially motivated actions. Amadou Diallo was not able to “move on” in a CNN media blitz because he also lost his life when 19 bullets pierced his body. Women, specifically women of color, are frequent victims of profiling but where are their stories? Can they move on?  It is important to scrutinize how the mainstream media is able to take certain issues and re-engineer them for a Hollywood, sensationalized effect. So the story of the wronged Black Harvard professor who now agrees to have beers in the white house with the man who profiled him becomes the headline, instead of an honest, true dialogue on the unglamorous nature of profiling in this country and how many people are affected and ultimately silenced by it.

I am sure that Skip Gates and President Obama have sincere intentions to make this a “teachable moment,” and to address the underlying issues of racism and unfairness at play in profiling. Unfortunately, many mainstream media outlets do not share this same outlook. So let us not corroborate with them in distorting the brutal truths of racial profiling and singling out this one incident from the many that plague us every day.